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The Normativity of Sacred Images in Early Modern Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - SACRIMA (The Normativity of Sacred Images in Early Modern Europe)

Période du rapport: 2020-12-01 au 2022-08-31

Relations between images and religious norms are extremely controversial in human societies today as well as in the past. However, the question of the ‘normativity of images’ was never systematically explored. While research on the ‘power of images’ progressed greatly in the last 30 years, the question of the capacity of images to produce norms was never addressed. SACRIMA put this question at the centre of a new comparative and interdisciplinary investigation into the status of the sacred image in Early Modern Europe. It studied relations between religion, aesthetics and geography in Early Modern Europe, breaking ground in two main ways. First, by conducting a new investigation of early modern images using the concept of ‘normativity’, a notion that is generally associated not with images, but with written documents. Second, by adopting a comparative and trans-national approach at the crossroad of the history of art, the history of religion and cultural geography. Through a new survey of image-based material in ecclesiastical archives in five major areas that, remaining inside Catholicism, responded differently to the challenge imposed by the Reformation, SACRIMA investigated relations between art, religion and cultural transfer in the period 1450-1650.

SACRIMA had three main objectives:

1. To provide a comparative survey of contested images in Italy, France, Iberia, the Low Countries and Southern Germany, investigating similarities and differences of institutional visual policies inside Catholic Europe, using a comparative approach and focusing on dynamics of conflict, negotiations and inter-confessional border crossing.
2. To develop and challenge the notion of ‘visual norm’ in different media, through a series of in-depth case-studies and an analysis of different aspects: form and materiality, meaning and iconographies, spatial relationships and movement, reproduction, restoration and reframing.
3. To integrate the investigation of institutional and visual norms through a study of art transfer and local reactions, aiming at reconstructing a cross-border cartography of image normativity and a geography of visual norms throughout Europe and beyond.

This reflection on the notion of the ‘normativity of images’ significantly contributed to shedding new light on previously explored notions such as those of ‘image censorship’, the ‘power of images’ or the ‘performance of images’. At a wider level the Project offered a richer understanding of the historical processes of integration of the different forms of European visual culture.
SACRIMA produced a total of 60+ publications meeting the three interconnected Objectives: (1) Institutional Normativity; (2) Visual Normativity; (3) Movement and Geography of Visual Norms:

(1) The Project charted major early modern archives not previously explore for what concerns image-based material. New sources and texts on institutional control and contested sacred images were collected from archives in Italy and Spain. This survey set the ground for a digital map of contested images, and allowed the Project to compare similarities and differences in image normativity within Europe. These issues were discussed in several workshops and Conference I. As a result, a book with 14 chapters edited by the PI and several peer-reviewed articles by the PI and TMs were published.

(2) The second Objective is subdivided in aesthetic normativity, iconographic normativity, and visual modes of reproduction and reframing. Data on widespread iconographies, relevant cases of reproduction and reframing of cult images/spaces, and controversial iconographic novelties were analysed throughout Catholic Europe and beyond The Team questioned notions of style in the rendering of sacred subjects by co-organizing a joint workshop on Mannerism (Rome, 5-6.6.2018). The Project's II International Conference addressed the theoretical conceptualisation of iconographic normativity by analysing the transmigration of images of children in Europe. The outcome of these activities is a series of peer-reviewed articles and two further edited books.

(3) The third Objective intersects with the other two insofar as each investigation involves a geographic dimension. With the help of web design contractors, the Team has developed interconnected tool that maps contested images and reactions and relevant artist and artwork transmissions that inspired iconographic repetition. In particular, an interactive digital atlas illuminates the relationship between some of the most relevant case studies of image normativity through text and imagery. Under this Objective, two Doctoral thesis where knowledge about the geography of sacred images and the development of a cross-border cartography of image normativity were completed.

Results were discussed in 6 organised conferences and in circa 50 papers offered to international academic venues.
SACRIMA charted new research topics and little explored archives and images from peripheral areas, reversing centralist paradigms. Forensic and legal sources proved successful for challenging traditional narratives on the development of and conflicts around sacred images. New findings regarding Image Normativity, Contested Images, Holy Houses, Child Saints, Crucifixions, Saint John the Baptist and Marian cults in Europe and beyond were analysed and published.

The conceptual work on the notion of 'visual norm' put in question old approaches reading 'influences' of religion and central authorities on images. A new paradigm according to which the normative effectivity of the image comes first and is often site-specific emerged.

A further achievement was the extension of the research work and the comparative approach to extra-European areas. For the first time a focused and comparative investigation of the normativity of sacred images in Europe and Japan was carried out and developed in a series of publications by Team Members and associated scholars.

These investigations shed new light on the limits of institutional norms, and iconographic normativities imposed by the images themselves. Departing from earlier national, regional, or centralized approaches, SACRIMA focused on cultural transfer, replicas and reframing from a transnational perspective, which challenges our understanding of image dissemination, stylistic development and relations between center and periphery.

SACRIMA’s comparative approach led to a mapping of differentiated visual norms in Europe and a better understanding of the geographies of the power and efficacy of images.

The Sacrima Digital Atlas for Contested Images was designed, implemented and put online as a pilot resource mapping contested images in Europe (

A total of 60+ publications were produced, including: 6 books/monographs, 12 articles in peer-reviewed journals, 27 chapters in edited books, and 15+ shorter contributions. 2 PhD thesis were completed. A book series for new research on The Normativity of Sacred Images on a global scale was established with Brepols. 4 book ms. by Team Members have been or are about to be submitted for publication (two with the Sacrima Series, two for other academic publishers).

SACRIMA's new outlook on the complex geographies and normativities of sacred images in premodern Europe and beyond impacted on subsequent international projects on sacred images, who are now using and developing concepts and ideas shaped by SACRIMA.